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How do you know you’re a carer?

We’ve just had a bit of a discussion over using the word ‘carer’.  One school of thought is that we need to claim and redefine the word. So many of us don’t realise that we are indeed carers; that what we’ve been thinking of as looking out for mum and dad is precisely what is meant by the carer label.

Avoiding the ‘c’ word

My worry is that the moment we use the ‘C’ word the people we’re trying to reach will switch off. They don’t see themselves as carers but as professionals caught up in the messiness of midlife: trying to juggle supporting older relatives with the demands of career, adult children, social lives, volunteering, partnerships old and new – but usually all of those things.

The slightly uncomfortable truth is that the word ‘carer’ comes wrapped with a host of rather negative connotations. Salaried carers are among the poorest paid members of the working population. Government reinforces that bottom-of-the-pile picture by only recognising those who are supporting another for 35 or more hours a week as ‘carers’. And ‘rewarding them with the paltry weekly sum of £62.10.  Carers are people who devote most of their waking hours to the well-being of another, to being their eyes and ears and nurse and advocate, chauffeur and chef. Aren’t they?

Recognising the need for support

Or are they the many millions more, like us,  who have somehow found themselves doing more and more for an elderly relative at a time in life when we’d expected to finally begin to find ourselves responsibility-free?  And if so, does it matter what we call it?  I’m not sure. When I wrote The Carer’s Handbook (HowtoBooks,  2007) I argued that it did. That claiming the name ‘carer’ was an important staging post in recognising your own need for support. Whether that comes formally through entering the social care system, informally through a support forum like Age Space, or simply means cutting yourself more slack in the rest of your life.

Now, as I contemplate the huge number of friends and colleagues who find themselves with a responsibility for supporting older family members, I wonder if we need a term that more people will recognise – and that will therefore help them see that they are not alone and think about accessing some of the support that is available.

A new phenomenon?

Ten years ago, my friends and I never reached the coffee stage of any dinner party without talking about our latest parenting challenges.  These days, forget dinner: most of us only seem to have space to skip straight to the coffee, and we spend those snatched minutes sharing our horror at parents who are still driving yet can’t see to the end of the garden. Or discussing how to get away on holiday when to do so would leave an elderly relative vulnerable. We have each other, but we don’t have the awareness yet that we are part of a phenomenon: the ageing children of a generation who are living longer but not necessarily better and may need our support for years to come.

Once we recognise that, we’ll be better placed to reach each other and help each other, not to mention raise awareness on the national agenda.

Is it caring? Or just the new midlife?

Do you think of yourself as a carer?  Are your parents caring or carers?  Let us know what you think on the Age Space Forum here.


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